October 1, 2023

Attackers break Russian journalist’s fingers and stab human rights lawyer in Chechnya

3 min read

Assailants have carried out a brutal attack on a human rights lawyer and a prominent Russian journalist in Chechnya, leaving them with stab wounds, broken fingers and head wounds.

The brazen assault on journalist Elena Milashina and lawyer Alexander Nemov in Grozny, Chechnya’s capital, was the most vicious in recent memory, leading even to a rare rebuke from the Kremlin which called it a “very serious attack that requires rather energetic measures”. Similar attacks in Chechnya, however, have gone unpunished for years.

Photographs showed Milashina after the attack in a hospital bed with both hands bandaged in gauze and her head and face covered in a green dye called zelyonka that was thrown on her during the attack. A video showed her nearly losing consciousness as she stumbled through the hospital, and then yelling in pain.

Milashina, a journalist for Russia’s independent Novaya Gazeta newspaper, is one of the country’s leading reporters on Chechnya, breaking stories including the Russian region’s 2019 campaign of torture and murder of members of the LGBT community.

She was travelling with Nemov from the airport to Grozny, where a verdict was expected in the case of Zarema Musayeva, whose detention is seen as retribution for her family’s political activism against Chechnya’s ruler, Ramzan Kadyrov.

Alexander Nemov climbing into an ambulance with Elena Milashina waiting behind him.
Despite being stabbed Alexander Nemov left the hospital and made it to the sentencing of Zarema Musayeva, a human rights activist. Photograph: Crew Against Torture/Reuters

On the way, Nemov and Milashina’s car was blocked by three cars carrying the assailants.

“It was a classic kidnapping … They pinned [our driver] down, threw him out of his car, got in, bent our heads down, tied my hands, knelt me down there, and put a gun to my head,” Milashina told Mansur Soltayev, a Chechen human rights official, as she lay in hospital in Grozny, according to a Reuters translation.

Memorial, a rights group outlawed in Russia, said that Milashina and Nemov had been “brutally kicked, including in the face, threatened with death, had a gun held to their heads, and had their equipment taken away and smashed.”

“While being beaten, they were told: ‘You have been warned. Get out of here and don’t write anything,’” Memorial said in a statement on Telegram.

Despite being stabbed in the leg, Nemov still appeared at the court hearing on Tuesday, where his client Musayeva was sentenced to 5 and a half years in a penal colony.

Unusually, a number of prominent officials, state TV pundits and others who generally ignore similar attacks on journalists called for an investigation, pointing to a culture of general lawlessness in Chechnya.

Dmitri Peskov, the Kremlin spokesperson said that President Putin had been informed about the assault and called it a “very serious attack that requires rather energetic measures.”

Yet Milashina had been threatened for years by Kadyrov and other members of the Chechen government close to him. In 2020, Kadyrov appeared to threaten her directly, saying on Instagram in response to an article about the republic’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic: “If you want us to commit a crime and become criminals, then say so. One will take on this burden of responsibility and will be punished according to the law. He’ll do his time in jail and get out.”

Milashina had previously been evacuated from Russia by her employer because of the threats against her.

Chechen officials disavowed any responsibility for the attack. Soltayev, the Chechen official in charge of human rights, called the assault an “audacious provocation against [Chechnya]”.

 This article was amended on 4 July 2023. Nemov attended the sentencing of Zarema Musayeva, not Mansur Soltayev as stated in an earlier caption on the second image.

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